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The poetry of P.K. Page was 'daring in scope' Add to ...

As elegant as she was curious, as vibrant as she was discreet, as prolific as she was experimental, P.K. Page, the poet, painter and prose writer - of every form imaginable - was a supremely creative person. "Dam it there," she said, jabbing one arm with a finger from the opposite hand, during an interview in her Victoria home in 2008, and "it comes out there. I can't not be doing something. I'm not a johnny-one-note."

At the time she was 91, although she could easily have passed for 75, with her casually waved hair and bright skin. She was wearing a chunky silver necklace, an azure silk blouse and loose fitting black trousers, as she sipped a drink and exchanged views on poetics, politics and personalities - the very model of vigorously engaged old age.

A sharp-eyed observer of the world and of her own species, she wrote more than 35 books, including two as recently as last November - a long poem called Cullen and a trilogy of fables for children called The Sky Tree . She won the Governor-General's Award for The Metal and the Flower , back in 1954 and was short-listed for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2003 for Planet Earth: Poems Selected and New . The title poem had been selected two years previously to mark the United Nations International Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations and had been read aloud simultaneously in New York, the Antarctic and the South Pacific.

Under her married name, P.K. Irwin, she created a large oeuvre of paintings, from whimsical to metaphysical, minimalist to lush, which are now held by the National Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario and private collectors across the country.

After growing up as a British immigrant on the prairie, she led a bohemian life in Montreal during the Second World War, writing short stories, working on a literary magazine with poet and constitutional lawyer Frank Scott, and honing her modernist voice. In 1950, she married magazine and newspaper publisher Arthur Irwin -her "rock" - and embarked on a completely different kind of life as a diplomat's wife in Australia, Brazil, Mexico and Guatemala. In the decades when cultural nationalism was gestating in Canada, she was out of the loop living mainly abroad in exotic postings, but on her return, she settled in Victoria, once thought of as an outpost of Empire, and, after an awkward transition, found a secure and significant place in Canadian letters.

"She's a very important touchstone for writers," Michael Ondaatje said in 1991. "She's raucous and funny in person, but her head is another reality. She has a very odd-angled vision of the world, tragic and comic, the imagined world lying side by side with the real."

In an online blog, the writer and critic Rosemary Sullivan commented: "No poet had a more impeccable sense of timing. Somehow, when P.K. Page broke the syntax of a line - and you heard it best when she read her poems - something cracked in you and opened out to the light… She understood that the rhythm of poetry was profoundly tied to the rhythms of the human brain, touching something archaic, something primordial in us…"

The late literary critic Constance Rooke identified her, decades ago, as quite simply: "Canada's finest poet." Ms. Page had a plainer estimation of her own talents. "I don't think I am after fame although I would love to write one poem that is really, really good, but I don't think I will," she confided two years ago. Obviously not suffering from megalomania, or what she called "the Irving Layton syndrome," she did allow that she had written "a couple of fairly good poems, but I would like to write a really good poem, but I can't force it."

Atlantic crossings

Patricia Kathleen Page was born in the middle of the First World War, the elder child of Lionel Frank Page, a soldier, and Rose Laura (née Whitehouse), a homemaker. Her father, who was born in England, had immigrated to Canada when he was about 19, after failing to get into the Royal Military Academy. He settled in Red Deer, Alta., where he acquired a piece of land and met Ms. Whitehouse, who had arrived from England to visit her brother, the local bank manager. The protective brother refused to let his sister marry Mr. Page because he had an overdraft, and she returned to England, secretly engaged. The First World War reunited the couple when he enlisted in the First Canadian Expeditionary Force and was shipped overseas. They married on, his first leave, just before he was sent to the front lines, where he won three DSOs and was Mentioned in Despatches several times.

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